Monday, November 21, 2005

Patriots 24, Saints 27 (11/20/2005)

You may have heard the rumors, and of course, they turned out to be partially true. I was indeed a late addition to the Patriots injury list last Friday, having suffered a throat injury in the Colts game when I yelled myself silly for all 36:41 of Indianapolis possession time. I was hopeful that the doctors were wrong and I'd be in peak form by game time this past Sunday, but alas, I was in the same boat as Troy Brown -- made the trip to the stadium, suited up, but was never a factor in the game. Fortunately, I brought along a friend loud enough to bellow for two, and he did an admirable job making up for my absence. My medical staff has assured me that I'll be ready to go by the December 4 game against the Jets. Thank you to everyone who sent along their cards and well-wishes. With your support I'll be healthy in no time.

Now, on the the game. The only thing pretty about Sunday was the weather. But the Patriots thrashed the Saints early and held on for a nail-biting 24-17 victory. They are now in the midst of their first winning streak of the season, and coupled with losses by all other AFC East teams, the Pats are two games ahead of their nearest competitors for the division title. That home playoff game feels closer and closer every day (and so does the playoff ticket invoice -- yikes!).

The offense started well, with a 16-play, 98-yard drive for a touchdown and a drive about half the size (5 plays, 48 yards) for another touchdown -- the first time they've gone touchdown-touchdown to start the game since the last regular season game of 2003 (31-0 win over Buffalo). The running back tandem of Heath Evans and Patrick Pass went for 127 yards on 29 carries (a healthy 4.4 yards a rush), and the O-line provided some gaping holes, which were combined with timely play-calling that gave them 4 carries of over 10 yards. Ben Watson had one of his best games, leading the team with 66 receiving yards and making his second outstanding catch in two weeks (a back-twisting stab in the first quarter). No TDs for Ben, but he's taking up Daniel Graham's slack nicely.

Tom Brady was Mr. Mediocre, with okay stats and no interceptions. He had a fumble that was mostly not his fault, and his play-action fakes are improved. But he over- or under-threw about six long passes, and if he connected on just half of them the game would have been a laugher. It was windy out, but that doesn't explain the passes coming up short and long going in both directions. He was just off, and the fact that those long strikes were simple incompletions meant the Saints didn't have to adjust their defense. And while the long ball was obviously part of the Pats game plan, someone needs to tell them that a 50-yard bomb isn't called for on third-and-four. Get the first down and take your shot on the next play; but above all GET THE FIRST DOWN. In that situation, something short and certain beats a 50-yard incompletion, so some of those stalled drives were the coaches' fault.

The defense helped Aaron Brooks look better than he really is, just like they helped Gus Ferotte last week. But in both games, the Pats worked hard to stop the run and they let up more passing as a result. Sure, the secondary is injured and in disarray, but for two weeks they've bent but not broken -- which is how the Patriots won all those games the past four years. I'm starting to like the improvement I see from new safety Michael Stone (seven tackles) and cornerback Ellis Hobbs (not afraid to hit); and as they improve, it seems like Eugene Wilson is playing a little better. Not Harrison/Wilson/Poole/Law yet, but better than previous weeks (although I admit it's easier to do this against the Saints than the Colts). Hobbs and his partner in crime Asante Samuel played okay but not great games. No picks, and some missed coverage, but overall they made the Saints work the ball down the field slowly. And often enough the Saints self-destructed; just like the Dolphins did last week.

Willie McGinest had a nice game (a sack, five tackles and two passes defensed), and Mike Vrabel, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi clogged up the Saints favorite running lanes. The Saints had been averaging 122 yards rushing a game, and the Pats held them to only 87. The front three/four needs to get more pressure on the quarterback, but I don't think that was a big part of the plan for the Saints game. And if you'll indulge me for a moment, Tedy Bruschi is a football genius. I watched him on one play, and he faked the blitz and then dropped back two yards and cut off a slant route at the *exact spot* where Aaron Brooks almost tried to deliver the ball (Brooks pulled it back at the last second and then threw it away). Bruschi's instincts are outstanding, and he's getting to his spots quicker every week.

The special teams were quite something in that wind. Adam Vinatieri kicked well into and against the wind, they had *zero* penalties on special teams, Josh Miller continued his Pro Bowl-caliber season with five boots for 47.5 yards a kick (while New Orleans averaged only 32.2). Their only blemish was a 46-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter; a play that helped the Saints get back into the game but did not prove fatal. But overall, with the wind swirling around, a very good day.

One coaching note: in case you hadn't heard, Steve Belichick (Bill's father) died of heart failure this past Saturday night. I hope you'll join me in sending my sincere condolences to Bill and his entire family.

So where does that leave us. Well, at 6-4, the Patriots are clearly the class of the AFC East. Leading the division by two games and having a 2-0 record within the division is about as much as you could hope for in a season like this. Next week's contest against the Chiefs in Kansas City is their toughest game left this year. KC has a balanced offense (which has given the Pats fits), so they can't load up to stop the run or the pass. Getting more pressure without committing more blitzers will be critical, so Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Rosevelt Colvin, and Willie McGinest will be on the hot seat. So enjoy the streak while it lasts; it could easily be over by next Sunday.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "In the first 8 games, the Patriots averaged 78 yards rushing a game. The last two? 112 yards. Thank you Miami Dolphins for Heath Evans. Now if they could just release a few defensive backs, we'd be in business."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-4!

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